Julia Salazar Wins Despite Identity Politics

Good news is difficult to find these days. Here’s some…

A democratic socialist candidate we discussed here won her primary, which apparently means she is going to win a seat in the state senate, as there’s no Republican candidate to face.

I call this “good news” because it marks a distinct crossroads where focusing on real policy issues and having practical solutions in hand triumphed over the tired beaten horse of identity politics.

Not everyone has to identify as a “Republican” or “Democrat.” Why can’t there be Socialists or Greens or Libertarians? Why is there this expectation of and insistence upon a duoploy which serves to represent the interests of the rich?

Suffice it to say, lowest common denominator “identity politics” is personified by the negative campaigns and personalities of rich candidates such as Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Many Americans tired of this long before election day arrived.

Congratulations to Salazar for doing her best to focus on policies which will benefit her constituency of Brooklyn voters, rather than it all being about who gets to decide definitively whether the label on the Heinz 57 bottle is “mostly chihuahua” or the pickle jar says “kosher.” Labels.

What follows are puzzle pieces to put the story together and decide for yourself:

Julia Salazar overcomes controversy to notch another victory for democratic socialists

She’ll be headed to the New York State Senate after toppling a long-serving incumbent in her Brooklyn district.

“The latest win for the insurgent progressive movement within the Democratic Party is in a New York State Senate district: Julia Salazar, the 27-year-old Jewish democratic socialist whose campaign drew national attention, won her primary Thursday to be the Democratic candidate on the ballot in November. Salazar defeated Democratic state Sen. Martin Dilan, who was running for his ninth term in the 18th District.

It’s rare for a state Senate race, even one in a section of Brooklyn home to many reporters, to get much notice. But Salazar’s campaign was unusual, featuring national media attention, comparisons to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and a high degree of scrutiny of her background.”

Either voters disliked incumbent opponent Dilan — painted as a crony of real estate developers — or affirmatively were attracted to Salazar’s ideas. Or possibly both.

Whatever the reasons for Salazar’s victory, one thing is clear: Despite being subject to a level of press scrutiny typically reserved for a US Senate candidate, rather than one running for New York State Senate, Salazar will likely be heading to Albany after the November general election — and will have a chance to put her left-wing ideals into practice.


The plane, boss, the plane! A symbol of her father, who is a cargo pilot.


“The State Senate campaign of Julia Salazar, a prominent member of the New York City Democratic Socialists of America, was jolted last week when Tablet Magazine published a story casting doubt on several parts of the candidate’s biography — from self-describing as an immigrant to her claim of Jewish lineage.

“We want to really point to the issues and not focus on labels and whether somebody fits a label or not,” New York City DSA co-chair Bianca Cunningham said about the discrepancies in Salazar’s biography. “I’ve worked with Julia for years. People immediately respond to her humility and resilience. It’s obvious she is a fighting person, a person with clear values.”

Bhaskar Sunkara, founder of Jacobin magazine and a DSA member since he was 17, said the Tablet article only deepened his commitment to Salazar’s campaign.”

Salazaar has a piece knocking on doors in NYMag Daily Intelligencer, and she made an appearance on the podcast Chapo Trap House.

But in the weeks before the election, much of the story she told about her identity came under scrutiny, from her immigrant status to her family income to her Judaism.”


Julia Salazar (from left), Zellnor Myrie, and Alessandra Biaggi all won their races last night in the New York State Senate.  Can you tell which one the Caucasian heterosexual Protestant male?

A Critique of Identity Politics

Remnick: There’s little question Trump and the distorting lenses of the right-wing and white-nationalist media have succeeded in inflating the “threat” of identity politics and political correctness as a key component of their rhetoric and electoral strategy. Steve Bannon represented Trump’s id on this subject and made it a centerpiece of Trump’s campaign, his Inaugural Address, and the early months of his Presidency. Lilla, who disdains Bannon for myriad political and moral reasons, also thinks he has a tactical point. And this is where our conversation began.

There is a quote recently Steve Bannon, of all people, delivered: “The Democrats, the longer they talk about identity politics, I’ve got ’em. I want them to talk about racism every day. If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats.”

And you have said it works for them—it being identity politics—but it doesn’t work for us. And there seems to be some link—not that I’m saying your politics, by any chance, are anything like Steve Bannon’s—but you’re saying a similar thing, aren’t you?

Lilla: It’s just an objective fact. I mean, he has no reason to lie about this. And the past two generations of our politics, I think, demonstrate exactly that.

Remnick: Let’s define what identity politics is, because it’s a phrase used now in all sorts of ways. And it seems to me identity politics has been at the root of politics for half of forever.

Identity politics is a political style and ideology that focuses on the issues relevant to various groups defined by a wide variety of shared personal characteristics, including, but not limited to, race, religion, sex, gender, ethnicity, ideology, nationality, sexual orientation, gender expression, culture, shared history, medical conditions, and other of the many ways in which people differ from each other, and into which they may be classified or classify themselves.

The problems that motivate identity political movements are not gone today: Aboriginal cultures are often ignored in mainstream educational systems, violence against women still permeates our lives, “equality” for queer people is still typically premised on sameness to privileged heterosexual subjectivity, and so on. Nonetheless, the very term “identity politics” seems in many ways hopelessly outmoded.

Models premised on categorical identification seem increasingly inadequate to the complexities of our becomings, and intra-group sameness as the basis of political solidarity feels not only exclusionary but also too heavily predicated on negation and loss.

In particular, poststructuralist challengers charge that identity politics rests on a mistaken view of the subject that assumes a metaphysics of substance—that is, that a cohesive, self-identical subject is ontologically (if not actually) prior to any form of social injustice (Butler 1999). This subject has certain core essential attributes that define her or his identity, over which are imposed forms of socialization that cause her or him to internalize other nonessential attributes. This position, they suggest, misrepresents both the ontology of identity and its political significance.

The alternative view offered by poststructuralists is that the subject is itself always already a product of discourse, which represents both the condition of possibility for a certain subject-position and a constraint on what forms of self-making individuals may engage.

There is no real identity—individual or group-based—that is separable from its conditions of possibility, and any political appeal to identity formations must engage with the paradox of acting from the very subject-positions it must also oppose. Central to this position is the observation that any claim to identity must organize itself around a constitutive exclusion:

An identity is established in relation to a series of differences that have become socially recognized. These differences are essential to its being. If they did not coexist as differences, it would not exist in its distinctness and solidity. Entrenched in this indispensable relation is a second set of tendencies, themselves in need of exploration, to conceal established identities into fixed forms, thought and lived as if their structure expressed the true order of things.

When these pressures prevail, the maintenance of one identity (or field of identities) involves the conversion of some differences into otherness, into evil, or one of its numerous surrogates. Identity requires differences in order to be, and it converts difference into otherness in order to secure its own self-certainty. (Connolly 2002: 64)

The dangers of identity politics, then, are it casts as authentic to the self or group an identity that in fact is defined by its opposition to an Other. Reclaiming such an identity as one’s own merely reinforces its dependence on this dominant Other, and further internalizes and reinforces an oppressive hierarchy.

Lilla: Certainly on the American right, ever since the Ku Klux Klan, we’ve had explicitly framed identity politics. That is in the sharpest sense. Now, you can say that people think of themselves as Italians or Jews or Germans, and then they become a kind of interest group. We’ve had interest-group politics before. But there’s a kind of essentialism to identity politics, where it means going out into the democratic space, where you’re struggling for power and using identity as an appeal for other people to vote for your side.

And I think Bannon’s completely right, and I’ll stand by what I said: that it works for their side and it doesn’t work for our side, for all kinds of reasons. Now, that is not to say that we don’t talk about identity. To understand any social problem in this country, you have to understand identity. And we’re more aware of that than ever, and that’s been a very good thing.

But, to address those problems with politics, we have to abandon the rhetoric of difference, in order to appeal to what we share, so that people who don’t share this identity somehow can have a stake, and feel something that other people are experiencing.

To give you an example, I’m not a black motorist. I will never be a black motorist. I don’t know what it’s like to look in the rearview mirror of a car and see the lights flashing and feel my stomach churn.

But I am a citizen. And that person is a fellow-citizen. And, if we can make the case that there are citizens in this country who can’t just go for a drive without being worried about this, and they won’t be equally protected by the law, I think I can make the case to people who aren’t black that that’s a terrible thing, right? And so I want to frame the issue in terms of basic values and principles that we share in order to establish sympathy and empathy and identification with someone else.

Remnick: And it’s impossible to have both at once? You can’t have a winning strategy without maintaining some semblance of a concentration on identity?

Lilla: The distinction I’m trying to make—between analyzing a social problem and developing a political program in order to win power—people who are in movement politics fail to see the distinction, I think. Because identity politics is maximalizing. That’s how you succeed—you see this as the only issue.

There’s a difference between speaking truth to power and seizing power to defend the truth. And those require very different things, right? And it’s important to speak truth to power out in society. We’re journalists, right? We need to write about this kind of stuff.

But, when we go out on the stump, it makes no sense to call out to various groups, as Hillary Clinton did, and inevitably leave people out. She would list the groups liberal Democrats care about today: African-Americans, gays and lesbians, women. One out of every four Americans is evangelical. Thirty-seven per cent of Americans live in the South. Seventeen per cent, as many as there are, of African-Americans in this country live in rural areas. There are different ways in which people think of themselves, right? And those people did not feel called out to.

Remnick: Why do you think they felt called out to by Barack Obama and not by Hillary Clinton? What was the key difference there?

Lilla: Precisely because Obama did not list groups. Because he talked about “we.” He didn’t always finish his sentences—he would say, “That’s not who we are,” and wouldn’t quite tell us who we are. But he understood that. Both Obama and [Bill] Clinton understood that playing identity politics in electoral politics is a disaster for the liberal side.

Remnick: So do you think, to any degree, the Trump victory, however narrow it was, was the result of a post-Obama hangover, of having had an African-American President for eight years?

Lilla: Oh, I’m sure that’s true. I mean, there are so many things—it’s overdetermined, any one explanation of this election. But we also know there are people who voted for Obama and voted for Trump, and they’re kind of a mystery to us. But I think we get too focused on Presidential elections in order to read where the country is.

Remnick: Because the Democrats are getting killed on a local level, on the state level.

Lilla: Right. And what people in identity movements haven’t faced up to is institutional politics will trump movement politics all the time.

We have a constitutional right to abortion in this country. And there are large sections of the country where a woman cannot get an abortion. That’s not because we haven’t been speaking truth to power, or we haven’t been organizing or marching enough. It’s because we haven’t gone out into those states and established a beachhead. By being able to go out and speak to those people and get them on our side.

Remnick: Mark, would you have written this book if Hillary Clinton had won? It was a victory by Trump of some eighty-thousand votes and some key counties and three Midwestern states. Would your argument hold up if it had gone just the other way?

Lilla: Yes, because it’s not about Trump. It’s really about the change, electorally, at the state and local level, which is really where the action happens now. That’s where the fight against unions is happening, that’s where the fight against public schools is happening, that’s where the fight against voting rights for African-Americans is happening. I probably wouldn’t have been spurred to write it, but that’s where the story is. But, even more, we are held in contempt—

Remnick: Who’s the “we” in this sentence?

lilla: Whenever I use the “we,” I’m talking about liberals. Liberalism has become a dirty word. Now, that’s largely the result of very successful work in the right-wing media in order to demonize us—

Remnick: And one of the things right-wing media does is take some examples of exaggerated identity politics, in your terms—cartoonish moments—and blow them up on Fox or Breitbart or the rest, and make it seem as if every student at Columbia or Oberlin or the University of Chicago is inflamed with this. Am I wrong?

Availability heuristic/ the salient exemplar

Ronald Reagan’s “welfare queen” as the signature “salient exemplar.” Reagan’s straw woman—a minority mother who uses her government money on fancy bling rather than on food for her family—became an effective rhetorical bludgeon to curb public assistance programs even though the vast majority of recipients didn’t abuse the system in that way. The image became iconic, even though it was the exception rather than the rule.

Psychologists call this bias the “availability heuristic,” an effect Trump has sought to exploit since the launch of his presidential campaign, when he referred to undocumented Mexican immigrants as rapists.

“It basically works the way memory works: you judge the frequency, the probability, of something based on how easily you can bring it to mind,” says Northeastern University psychologist John Coley. “Creating a vivid, salient image is a great way to make it memorable.”

This is the same bias that makes you fear swimming in the ocean lest you get attacked by a shark, despite shark attacks being far less common than, say, death by coconut. When something is memorable, it tends to be the thing you think of first, and then it has an outsize influence on your understanding of the world. After the movie Jaws came out, a generation of people was afraid to swim in the sea—not because shark attacks were more likely but because all those movie viewers could more readily imagine them.


Lilla: Oh yeah. They are absolutely able to exploit things and exaggerate them like that. However, when they use it to show a mentality, a way in which we think about things, whether on campus or elsewhere, I think we are exposed. When some of the campus craziness happens, it reveals something already in the university that doesn’t always take the craziest form. And the way in which we have ended up educating, and in my view miseducating, the liberal élite in this country for political action.

Remnick: What’s your experience on campus, in real life? You’ve been at the University of Chicago, you’re at Columbia now, you’ve been elsewhere. Is the cartoon true? How much does this enter your life as a teacher, as a faculty member? Or is it all blown up? What’s the reality of it, day to day?

Lilla: Well, my case is a little special. I don’t belong to a department—I have a university-wide appointment—so I don’t have to sit in on faculty decisions about hiring and things like that. I teach “Homer to Virginia Woolf” to eighteen-year-olds.

If I don’t send out signals that we’re going to talk about identity, they don’t. We talk about the books. But I see them after they go out, after their first year, and I can see many of them get absorbed in this. They come into my office, and I just listen to them. I don’t argue with them.

Remnick: And what do you hear?

Lilla: What I see, essentially, is to the extent they are political, their political interest is circumscribed by either how they see their own identity or what they think identity issues are. I’m struck by the lack of interest in military affairs, class structure, economics that’s not economics in order to get into business school. There’s a lack of interest in American religion. All of these subjects that might help you understand the country in a richer way.

Instead, they’re very much drawn to classes that are about themselves. Of course, they’re eighteen to twenty-two, and they’re also searching—searching politically and to situate themselves in terms of racial and other identities. And, certainly, sexually, they’re trying to figure themselves out. And so they’re drawn to classes that speak to that.

These are real subjects worth studying. But when you think of what should happen during these four years, especially if you want to create liberal citizens who think of themselves as citizens and are prepared to engage, and that means understanding the whole country, it leads to a kind of truncated sense of what politics is. It gives a distorted picture of what’s going on in the rest of the country. And so we end up producing liberal élites who are clueless about the rest of the country, and clueless about all sorts of other themes, especially class.

Remnick: Mark, it seemed the Bernie Sanders campaign was almost all about class. He had a real ambivalence toward, even antipathy toward, what you describe as identity politics, no?

Lilla: He did, yeah. There are a lot of progressives saying all of the same things, progressives who’ve written books attacking identity politics. (Walter Benn Michaels is probably the best known.) And they are saying it’s taken our eyes off class in this country. The rich are waging a class war upon us.

I’m very sympathetic to that point of view. We end up talking to ourselves and training young people in this limited range of issues that tend to be self-referential, so when they go out there, and are ready to engage, they’re incapable of talking in large themes.


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